|Photo courtesy of T. Patana, Kendo Photography|
Another month down, another new focus for training. This month we'll be focusing on harai waza. Here are some of my personal thoughts on it, from my own training and experience.
I really had trouble figuring out how to start this entry. Normally I just open the page and go to work, letting whatever ideas and thoughts I have flow out onto the screen, but this one really had me stumped for a while, mainly because everything I started to write sounded really negative and I didn't mean it to, so I think I'll just go with it and try to get to the point that I was trying to make in the first place.
When I first started learning harai waza it was part of kihon kata three. If you want to be fancy, that would be the Bokuto ni yoru kendo kihon waza keiko ho, kihon san - harai waza. The idea was simple: strike the motodachi's shinai out of center and deliver a men strike, all in one smooth movement. It was one of the physically minimal kata that we did, as it just required one step forward from kakarite while performing harai men, and then one step back to kamae. Doing it in kata and doing it in practice were two vastly different stories, though. Where I was smooth and pretty good at the movement in the kata, I was clunky and slow at it with my shinai, and my timing always seemed to be off. I persisted, though, and over time I started getting a feel for the timing and for how to make that opening, and started being able to utilize it not only for opening men but also for kote and, recently, even tsuki.
One thing that really helped me was striking my partner's shinai more toward the tsuba. if I tried to attack their shinai at the tip, I could hit it as hard as I wanted to and get very little opening on their end, if any opening. But the further I moved down their shinai before I performed the harai movement, the bigger the opening would become and the less energy I would exert. This was key to making that opening for me. Anyone who is reading this may have a different view, or different way of doing it, but personally this worked well, and still works for me to this day.
The footwork was a little trickier, but I found that the more I was able to slide my front foot out the better my timing would be. There was no way I could make it work if I tried to harai, step, then attack. My feet would always be behind and it just looked awkard. Instead I started sliding my foot out and made the step happen as a continuous movement as I performed the harai waza. Later on I also learned to do different timings with my feet, including doing it on a two-step timing, along the lines of kote-men where you step on each strike. When I do it this way, I'm able to do different off timings to mix it up and keep people guessing.
sometime after I passed shodan I used harai waza successfully for the first time in a tournament. I believe it was harai kote. I was already up a point, stepped in and decided to go for it, as my opponent had not moved their tip at all. Later on in my kendo journey, I used it during another tournament (I was sandan at the time) and scored it again. One of the shinpan judging that match came up to me later in the day and told me that it was a textbook harai kote, in his opinion. It was really encouraging, especially for a waza that I used to shy away from because I wasn't any good at it.
Once I learned the basics of how to make it work, I was able to start applying those pieces to create openings for kote, men and tsuki. The targets differ but my overall approach to them remains pretty much the same, and I'm able to use my different footwork to create different timings, as well as delaying the actual attack afterward to compensate for someone that blocks (or doesn't block) and attack other targets. Am I going for men? They might block high, which opens up the kote to strike. Maybe they think I'm trying to open for kote, so they try and block or smother my shinai, so instead I come around and strike their men. The possibilities and combinations are numerous.
For a waza that used to be one of my weakest, it has now become one of my favorite ways of opening my partners and opponents for attacks, although just like anything I try and avoid overuse. You always want to keep them guessing, right?